Tiempo Libre: Bach to Havana
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Tiempo Libre

Back to Bach via Havana
Jorge Gómez, pianist, composer and musical director of Miami's Tiempo Libre talks with Michael Stone.

(Listen while you read )

When a group of young Cubans converged in Miami and began to play timba, the popular Cuban dance form, the future members of Tiempo Libre had no idea what might ensue. The group's musical director, pianist-composer Jorge Gómez says, "We never imagined this, but life has been guiding us to those moments where we had to act. We started with timba in Miami, and everyone said, 'You're crazy. It won't work, no one knows the music, there's no audience.' But we kept playing timba, and things started happening. We were invited to produce for a theater piece about the story of our lives, called 'Miami Libre.' Then we started giving classes. When we give a concert, people asked us, can you give classes? Sure, so we go to a kindergarten or a university and do a workshop." Upcoming invitations include artist-in-residence programs at Michigan State University and Interlochen Academy.

Gómez relates, "With Tiempo Libre's U.S. and Asian success with timba, now there are at least ten timba groups in Miami: Manolín El Médico de la Salsa, Milpa, Piquete, Carlos Manuel, and they each have their regular gig. We're going to be playing at a new place called La Casa de Tula. You know the Cuban folk song 'El cuarto de Tula'? This is La Casa de Tula [laughs]. Miami, San Francisco, New York, all have big audiences for timba. There we've played at Lincoln Center, the Blue Note, Dizzy's, South Street Seaport, Satala, La Rumba, a lot of timba in New York."

After recording two CDs on Shanachie, Tiempo Libre collaborated on "Rumba Sinfónica" with Venezuelan classical composer Ricardo Lorenz, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, the Ravinia Festival. and the Festival of the Arts Boca, in a work for Cuban band and symphony orchestra. The work premiered in Minneapolis in November 2007.

Gómez recalls, "Then flautist Sir James Galway suddenly appeared with a fantastic idea, to do something together with the jazz suites of Claude Bolling. Galway came to Cuba and the album, O'Reilly Street, came out last year [RCA Red Seal, 2008]. When Galway plays, you truly feel the music. And with Afro-Cuban tradition, it's about dancing. Put the two together, and what you have is love."

The group's members all trained classically, and as conservatory students, they were discouraged from playing Afro-Cuban and popular dance music, although it was common for musicians to perform privately and in the street. Relates Gómez, "We all studied at the same schools: El Elemental Manuel Saumell [named for the prominent nineteenth-century Cuban composer], la Escuela Provincial de Ballet, and la Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), the island's premiere conservatory. Fifteen years studying classical music. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms…"

Gómez recalls, "You couldn't play tumbao, jazz, rock, only classical. Later, after I graduated, they asked me, 'Do you want to teach popular music?' I said, 'You wanted to throw me out of school for playing popular music, and now you want me to teach it? Sure!' Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval had the same experience."

I spoke with Gómez before their concert with the Conga Kings in Princeton in May, 2009. Their latest album, Bach in Havana (Sony Masterworks), featuring guest appearances by Paquito d'Rivera and Yosvany Terry, had been released earlier that week, and I remarked that while Tiempo Libre's classical training was evident throughout the CD, it was never just about technique, and it never sounded forced.

Gómez responded, "No, the CD is about our lives, told through music. Starting to study music at five years of age, it's obvious, one of the most prominent composers is Johann Sebastian Bach. He has simple melodies, and he also has very complicated fugues, beginning the basic minuet. We studied for many years, but of course we also learned Cuban music and culture, rumba, danzón, cha cha cha. Now that we've have a certain degree of maturity, we wanted to return to our beginnings. To recall our youth studying classical music, but with a knowledge of the streets, playing rumba. We take a theme, do a minuet as a guaguancó, a sonata as a cha cha cha, an aria as a bolero." Under a general understanding governing artists living abroad, the group's members are free to return to Cuba. Remarks Gómez, "If you don't get into politics, no problem. I don't really have family there anymore, but your barrio [neighborhood] is your family in a way. Of course, when you talk about life in Cuba, you can't avoid touching on politics, not necessarily to criticize, but simply as a fact of life, like anywhere."

Tiempo Libre's U.S. success has not gone unnoticed in Cuba. Says Gómez, "Musicians are always aware of what's happening, especially with Cuban groups that make it abroad. All the Cuban musicians in the United States studied at the same schools, they all know each other. But for people in general, you have to reach them through the media. They might play your music on the radio in Cuba, but they won't identify you. If it's a group from Miami, they'll say, 'Un grupo cubano!' [imitates radio announcer's voice]. Many times, groups come here from Cuba, like [Orlando Valle] Maraca, they know us, of course. Now we're touring with the Conga Kings, and we've performed on bills with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, La India, Aretha Franklin, Celia Cruz, Jimmy Bosch, Albita, NG La Banda, Cachao, Arturo Sandoval, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Isaac Delgado..."

What do they do in Miami when not touring? "Tiempo Libre is like a family. We're used to being together. When we return from tour, we spend a day or two at home, then we're on the phone, 'What's happening? Let's have a barbecue. Let's go to a concert. Let's compose a new song.' To dream, more than anything, what might happen in the future."

Gómez continues, "It's an evolutionary process. Like it or not, you have to adapt. Life goes on, even if you're not there. Basically, it's that way with our new CD. It used to be a taboo to mix, classical music was very serious. But with this one we wanted to open it up to the world, to the point where people could even dance to Bach. Like in his time! We want to revive that, a combination of traditions, to unite two worlds that normally would not meet, and see what happens. As with all new things, you have anxiety, you're preoccupied with how it will turn out, but you have to do it. We're represented by a management company that mostly represents classical artists. Of course, we're from that world, we have diplomas certifying us as classical teachers. I thought, good, this could work well, following our dream to mix Cuban and classical music, because Bach is like the DNA of world music."

"First you have to find a composer: Lizst, Chopin, Bach. They're very melodic, lyrical, highly expressive, they have a lot of heart and passion. Cuban music is much more percussive, it's mathematical. So it was very easy to mix Bach and Cuban music. Then we had to select pieces from Bach. It wouldn't be so easy with Debussy's 'Claire de Lune!' Cuban music is always eight bars, like Bach. Other classical music, not necessarily, and there would be problems to mix, say, Lizst or Chopin with Cuban music. It would be difficult, but Chopin has a transcendental character. I'd love to do a recording like that, but it would be very difficult. Take Etude No. 4, I'd do it this way [enunciates a rapid rhythm]…'

What about a project focusing on the great Cuban composers, Cervantes, Saumell, or Lecuona?

"Sure. The truth is that a lot of people have done things like that, but they simply replicate the music. We're doing something more contemporary, more mixed with jazz. There are so many things in play. It's never been done the way we conceive of it. It could be jazz and Cuban, rock and Cuban, or very typical Cuban, but something fresh."

"Music in Cuba is a mix of many different sources. Cervantes, Saumell, Lecuona, they all did classical music, but it wasn't exactly classical. It was more popular, and of course you could dance to it too. Bola de Nieve was another who did a lot in classical style, but it wasn't really classical, it wasn't well defined. There was an era in Cuba when they had something called filin, sentimental, Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Cesar Portillo de la Luz, Bebo Valdés, Pablo Milanese the trova singer, a lot of singers, Elena Burke. Now we have [Cuban singer] Francisco Céspedes, Pancho Céspedes in Miami, he has a great club, called Clic."

Any final remarks?

"Basically, we formed Tiempo Libre because we're happiest making music, it's what we do best. Here in the USA, a lot of people feel stuck, doing things they don't enjoy doing. But I'm telling you, if you fight, if you struggle, if you have faith and patience, always, you are going to reach your goals. And that's worth a lot, because the whole world can recognize the result. Take a group like Tiempo Libre, eight years of working without pause, something has to happen! There are a lot of groups that work for six months and get bored. They say, 'No, there's no money, there's nothing in it,' and they put it aside. You have to just keep at it with consistency. There's nothing more beautiful than when you achieve at least the basics, knowing that people appreciate your work, like our recognition for the two Grammy nominations, the great interest in our music worldwide. Wow, we must be on the right path! At least someone has taken note of our work. And more than anything, there's a sense of pride that we don't have to constantly be teaching people about an impenetrable culture, something practically forgotten, floating in the air. Cuba seems like a mystery, who knows what's happening? And we have a platform to illustrate what's happening there musically, creating a more open environment, so people can understand, analyze, learn, enjoy, feel Cuban music in the world." - Michael Stone

Listen to tracks from Bach in Havana

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